What Happens in a Marriage When a Spouse Acquires Disability

In conjunction with Valentine’s Day on 14 February, our social worker-turned-volunteer manager Khoo Khee Ling, sheds some light on the realities that couples face after one acquires a disability.  

In conjunction with Valentine’s Day on 14 February, our social worker-turned-volunteer manager Khoo Khee Ling, sheds some light on the realities that couples face after one acquires a disability.  

A marriage begins with a vow on the wedding day, in the presence of family and friends, ‘to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part’. 

While the wedding vow is said in an atmosphere of joy and excitement of a new life together, it is a solemn promise to stay faithful and committed come what may. However, when a disability strikes, the vow that was made so eagerly on the wedding day is put to the test. What will one do when the marriage seems to be ‘for worse’, ‘for poorer’ and ‘in sickness’? Can one still hold on to the promise ‘to love and to cherish’ a spouse who has acquired a disability? What does it take for a marriage to survive the unfortunate event and last ‘till death do us part’? 

“For worse…” 

When a spouse sustains a physical impairment, it can be a physically, emotionally and mentally traumatic experience for the marriage. Life takes on a sudden turn when a life partner loses the ability to function as before the disability sets in. 

The family is thrown into instability as roles within the family will change with the disability. The able-bodied spouse would now need to shoulder the bulk of the household responsibilities, from being a breadwinner to being a caregiver to their spouse and children. 

Besides the pressure of taking on new roles, the spouse may also face a different kind of stress – that of losing a companion, someone who can reciprocate emotionally. A spouse is usually seen as a confidante, someone to discuss important matters with and seek support from when the going gets tough. But when either one acquires a disability, the other may be expected to give more than before. It is in times like these that the relationship is thrown out of equilibrium. 

“For poorer…” 

When a spouse acquires a disability, one area which is greatly impacted is the family’s finances. At the onset of the disability, one is likely to be unfit for some time, if not permanently. This often results in a sudden loss of income which the family must still deal with in the midst of grief and anguish. 

At the same time, expenses may increase in more than one aspect – medical attention for the  spouse, alternative childcare arrangements, specialised transport requirements, modifications to the home environment and more. The family faces the challenge of meeting these new financial demands, while possibly having to work on a smaller budget than before. 

To deal with the sudden change in their financial situation, families with a member who has recently acquired a disability may have to adjust their lifestyles and spending habits. Often, the task of managing the family’s finances lands in the hands of the spouse who is well. This new responsibility can be stressful especially when the spouse with the disability has been the one managing the money matters for the family. 

“To love and to cherish…” 

Seeing a spouse acquire a disability is an unpleasant experience that is not easy to come to terms with. A healthy marital relationship is one where there is mutual support, intimacy and shared dreams and goals. 

Often with the presence of a disability, the support becomes one sided, there is a loss in intimacy and dreams and goals may have to take a back seat. Very often, the spousal relationship changes and the married couple will need to find new ways to support each other, have intimate moments and rebuild their dreams. This would mean that the spouse who has the disability needs to learn to come to terms with the loss of his or her physical functions, and find ways to adapt and ’move on’ in life. External support such as counselling can help the person with disability to explore options and make responsible choices for self and family. 

Likewise, the spouse who is well will also need to accept the disability of his or her partner, and learn to see potential and possibilities beyond the disability. He or she will also need to learn coping strategies to deal with the increased responsibility and changes in familial role. The need for self-care is even more important than before because only when one learns to take good care of himself or herself, is he or she then able to be a good and supportive caregiver to the spouse with the disability and the family. 

“Till death do us part…” 

Having a spouse who acquires a disability does not mean the end of a marital relationship. It is possible to remain supportive to each other, enjoy intimate moments together and rebuild dreams or even make new goals together. What helps to keep the marriage together despite the disability is the commitment to each other in the face of difficulties. 

When the situation proves too demanding or stressful, the couple can seek support from social workers or counsellors. These professionals will walk with them through the tough times, talk through their difficulties and help them to see options and possibilities. 

When the couple is ready to move on, the counselling ends and they re-embark on their journey of life together, now with the support of each other. We wish all our clients and their spouses a loving and long-lasting marriage! 

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